- Josh Anderson
Running Back to You
In 2016, Aaron and Vivian Shugars joined the World Race, a mission trip that sent them to 11 countries in 11 months. What they discovered was a deeper dependence on God and a renewed love for one another. Read more about how traveling in different directions around the world reunited this couple in new and unexpected ways.
I first got to know Aaron and Vivian Shugars at a fundraiser—their fundraiser. They were selling T-shirts and other items to help pay their way onto the World Race. I had never heard of this 11 month mission trip that sends teams of volunteers to 11 different countries around the world.
I bought a T-shirt and heard some of their story.
The journey would be an intensive 11-month trek, and Aaron and Vivian were responsible for raising all of their own financial support.
If that wasn't a big enough commitment, the World Race was about to send this couple that had only recently been dating at the time in almost completely opposite directions around the globe—for almost an entire year.
It would be a leap of faith with plenty of twists and turns. And though the paths they traveled may have been different, their return destination was the same. It's a pretty great story, and I'm honored to share some of it here.
Vivian Takes the First Step
Vivian was the first to consider going on the World Race.
A nurse by trade who was working at Grandfather Home for Children (now a part of Children's Hope Alliance), she had always felt a deep desire to care for people as a missionary in Africa. Her current circumstances felt more like there was a void in her life.
"I wanted to see the Lord more in my life," Vivian said. "But the more I looked into the World Race, the more excuses I gave myself for not going."
The full commitment of 11 months was too long. How could she possibly be gone from work that long? And she thought the the two-week options were too expensive.
She reluctantly applied, but again dragged her feet on making a decision. That is until she received an email inviting her to join the team.
"I said to God that He had to give me a sign, and he did," Vivian said. "That same night I had some pretty vivid dreams showing me on the field as part of the race." It was something she could no longer ignore.
Vivian accepted the invitation and chose Route 1 with World Race which sends participants to 11 different countries to partner with existing in-country hosts and ministries.
Turns out Vivian had started the application process and was already accepted before she even told Aaron. At the time she said "I wanted to choose God over a boy."
Aaron Stumbles Along
Aaron was firmly against going on the race, especially after hearing that Vivian had already been accepted. It took him about a month to come around to the idea.
Even though he knew there was a policy against people dating while on the race, he applied for the World Race, albeit a different route. He wanted a route to more coastal areas because he thought he could do a lot of diving. "Priorities, right," Aaron joked.
"I was turned down," Aaron said. "They asked me some pretty personal questions about my lifestyle and the heart behind my answers didn't match up with their expectations."
Aaron realized that he needed to put God first instead of selfishly focusing on his earthly desires.
"Sin prevented me from doing what I wanted to do," Aaron admitted. "That's when I committed to really living my life for God instead of just trying to be a good person."
For Aaron, he needed the guidance of others to help him find his way. Together with Vivian, he participated in a ministry school led by Scott and Becky Lycan and Paul Sherar. Although, admittedly Aaron was against that too.
"I wasn't at all comfortable with it at first, but Scott and Becky helped me so much," Aaron said. "Their hearts led me back to God and they taught me how to pray."
That newfound ability to pray with boldness helped Aaron as he decided to reapply for the World Race. Initially he was told race leadership to wait one year before doing so. Instead he waited about six months before submitted a new application. This time he applied for the Expedition Route—a much harder version of the race.
"I remember having a phone conversation with a World Race representative who asked why I didn't wait a year like they suggested," Aaron said. "But I had prayed and anticipated they would ask me that along with two other specific questions."
They asked all three questions he thought they would. And Aaron was open and honest with them about how his heart had changed so drastically. "I told them that I needed to have intimacy and healing with God before I could go on the World Race."
And with all that, Aaron and Vivian were going on the World Race. They would be traveling to a different country every month from January to November 2016. Though their routes were heading in entirely different directions, this trip around the world would soon bring the couple back together again like never before.
Strong Start for Vivian
Vivian admits that the deepest and most powerful part of the trip was at the very beginning. She couldn't help but feel excited to go into all the world to heal—something she had dreamed of for so long. And yet, there was more to it than just that.
"I no longer felt that void like before," Vivian said.
"Putting down sins in my own life to draw closer to God made me feel like a true daughter."—Vivian Shugars
Vivian shared her love for the Father as she worked with children in South Africa, Honduras, and Nicaragua. She proclaimed her faith everywhere she went, but especially in Botswana, Madagascar, and Malaysia. Vivian taught in Vietnam, developed as a leader in Cambodia, identified new ministry partners in El Salvador and Guatemala, and participated in prison ministry in Nicaragua.
"My favorite was probably Thailand where we assisted a woman who had a ministry for sex traffic survivors," Vivian said. "We worked to help make her farm sustainable. A snake fell out of tree and into my arms. And there were scorpions everywhere. I loved all of it."
Vivian went from a paid job to being a volunteer. She went from being timid about her faith to boldly proclaiming the gospel. She was listening to prayer and living out her love for God regardless of location. It was a transformational time.
And yet her excitement sagged under the weight of fatigue. "At times I felt like I was more passionate about this than my teammates," Vivian admitted. "I stumbled around trying to tell people about God when it felt like we were missing Him ourselves."
Still, she was able to develop meaningful relationships with locals and her teammates on the race. And though she and her teammates weren't all on the same trajectory spiritually, Vivian learned how to communicate clearly and with purpose.
"I learned how to say the hard things and to work through disappointments," Vivian said. "Traveling the world I got to see how to appreciate the little things, like a delicious meal or a hot shower, and I got to learn more about God as creator."
Clear Calling for Aaron
Thousands of miles away, Aaron was on the Expedition Route which sends teams to some unchartered territory. These volunteers were responsible for identifying new ministry partners and initiating relationships with them.
Aaron and his team visited Indonesia, Thailand, Mianmar, India, Nepal, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, and Morocco. But one stop in particular captured Aaron's heart.
"By far the most impactful place I visited was the refugee camps in Greece," Aaron said.
It was in Greece where Aaron felt most alive when sharing his love for Jesus with a group of people who struggled day after day. And it was here that Aaron felt the power of prayer by asking God for healing and hope. Aaron found a calling in Greece.
"I really want to go back there some day soon and work with refugees."
"By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”—John 13:35
A Terrible Accident
Aaron's desire to return to work with refugees wasn't deterred even after he and some teammates experienced a horrific car crash in India.
"Our team had traveled to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal, with our friend and guide Mr. Kahn," Aaron recalled. "We were returning to Varanasi that night, which was a 12-hour drive."
Eight people had crammed into a tiny car for the long journey. Three people sat on the back seat bench, one person was curled on the floor in front of them, and three guys laid in the back hatch. Aaron was laying on his back with his legs and feet in the air resting on the back of the seat bench. Everyone in the vehicle was asleep when the accident occurred around 4:30am.
"Mr. Kahn was sitting in the front seat of the car and he received most of the force from the accident," Aaron wrote in an update. "He sustained injuries to his hand, he had a deep gash with exposed nerve endings, but this in no way stopped him or slowed him down in helping us out of the vehicle, checking on us, bringing water, towels, and talking with police, and first responders at the crash site."
Once the ambulance arrived, Aaron was given a shot to help with the pain in his ribs, and the “doctor” assessed all of the team briefly. The team piled into the emergency vehicle and rode to the nearest hospital.
Their adventure didn't end there. They had to travel to two additional hospitals before the team finally found the capable care they needed.
"Our whole team was very, very blessed to be here and to not have gotten injured worse or killed," Aaron said. "The accident really brought this newly formed team into a deep connection with one another and with our Father. We all bonded in ways that would have taken us a lot longer to develop had we not gone through this traumatic event."
In the end teammates had sustained a concussion, a broken nose, soft-tissue damage, deep cuts, and countless bruises.
"I was mostly unscathed thankfully other than a sore back," Aaron said. "I had bruised ribs and soft-tissue damage, as well as the same on my upper spine. Thankfully nothing more happened to my already hurt and casted ankle from another incident on the trip."
And yet this car wreck would not be the most memorable event of Aaron's trip around the world.
Even though the World Race has a policy against people dating, Aaron and Vivian were able to keep in contact via email. And it was through this regular written contact that the two of them were able to share much of what was going on—in their hearts as much as in the countries they were visiting.
"I would say we became better communicators on the race," Aaron said. "We certainly became better friends as we shared how this experience was impacting us."
Aaron knew that he wanted to ask Vivian marry him. So he contacted World Race officials to ask for permission to leave his team and travel to El Salvador. His plan was to surprise Vivian with a proposal on the beach.
Vivian is a big fan of penguins. So Aaron rented a penguin suit and coordinated a rendezvous with the help of some of Vivian's teammates. The plan worked. Needless to say, Vivian was not expecting a man dressed as a penguin to propose to her.
"This giant penguin came up to me on the beach and sun was in my eyes so I couldn't see who it was at first," Vivian said. "When I saw it was Aaron it went from a bit creepy to really, really special."
This was the first time Aaron and Vivian had seen each other in person since leaving for the race more than nine months prior.
They got married eight days after the race ended in 2016. They met up in Ireland with their families in attendance before returning stateside.
What had been a dating relationship initially founded on physical attraction had grown into a close friendship built on a shared affection for God.
They were miles apart but could not have felt any closer to one another.
Vivian said it best, "God used the World Race to reunite us—with Him and with each other."